Scientists understand that stress in early childhood can create lifelong psychological troubles, but have only begun to explain how they emerge in the brain.
For example, they have observed that stress incurred early in life attenuates neural growth. Now a new study with male mice exposed to stress shows that the hippocampus reaches some developmental milestones early—essentially maturing faster in response to stress.
The findings, the first to track and report signs of stress-related early maturation in a brain region as mice develop, may lend some credence to the expression that children facing early adversity have to “grow up too fast.”
Kevin Bath, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University, became curious about whether some brain regions were maturing faster when he observed that certain traits in humans and rodents—such as fear-driven learning and memory, sexual development, and neural connectivity among some brain regions—were accelerated, rather than stunted, after early life stress. Some of these qualities, particularly memory and emotion regulation, involve the hippocampus.